Just how far along the slick slope of cultural decline have we fallen? While you’ve been reading the Superficial and playing Hot or Not, The American Psychological Association's “Task Force On the Sexualization of Young Girls” has been hard at work chronicling our sexed up, dumbed down culture. Liberals and conservatives alike are convinced, it seems, that a toxic mix of toys, music, and media is turning 'tweens into tarts.
It’s all here, in 72 titillating pages—the Kid Rock Lyrics (So blow me bitch I don’t rock for cancer/I rock for the cash and the topless dancers), the characterization of the Internet as a conduit for porn, the descent of the model Disney heroine from modest maiden (Snow White) to “sexy” strumpet (The Little Mermaid.) They’re about two years behind the US Weekly crowd—Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears (not yet depilated ), and Paris Hilton all figure prominently—but it hardly matters. The cast here is changeable, the message eminently recyclable: American teens are at risk like never before.
Well, there is a slight innovation at play in the APA's retelling of good girls gone bad. We’ve apparently moved beyond the age of the tarted up ‘tween and into the era of the prostitot, the epoch of the kinderwhore. The hallowed thong, “an item of clothing based on what a stripper might wear,” now comes in kid sizes. “Pudgy, cuddly, and asexual troll dolls” have been traded for “trollz,” apparently highly gendered. Even the American Girl dolls, who might as well come packaged with promise rings on their porcelain figures, are not immune. “American Girl’s recent co-branding with Bath & Body Works,” we learn, “may lead to product tie-ins that will encourage girls to develop a precocious body consciousness and one associated with narrowly sexual attractiveness.” And let’s not even get started on Bratz.
The report is short on numbers, heavy on anecdote. But it’s easy to be persuaded that 8-year-olds are dressing more like 'tweens, 'tweens more like teens, and teens more like 20-somethings. Which means—what, exactly? Kids ape their older peers, and they’ve never had more access to images of underdressed celebutants. A sixth-grader in a short skirt could well be a sign of a sexually dysfunctional society, a pie-eyed Paris in the making. Or she could simply suggest that 11-year-olds pick an outfit the same way they long have, hoping to find acceptance within a social group and signal mastery over a shared culture. Fashion can suggest sexual availability, or it can imply inclusion. Are they dressing for men, or for one another?
It’s not a question the APA bothers to address. The authors present the escalating Hilton/thong/Bratz situation beside a litany of alarming pathologies that sexualization might conceivably provoke, from eating disorders to depression to low self esteem to addiction. There is no suggestion that some girls are more vulnerable to these problems than others; the weight of an underdressed Lindsay Lohan burdens all of us equally. The report then moves seamlessly from low self-esteem to violent, predatory behavior. Sex abuse “is an extreme form of sexualization,” just a few steps away from those Trollz on the alleged sex continuum.
Again, the report is a designated stat-free zone, but numbers on the state of girlhood are dramatic enough to be worth repeating. The Guttmacher Institute reports (PDF) that the teen pregnancy rate in 2002, the latest year available, was at its lowest level in 30 years. Between 1998 and 2002, the teenage abortion rate dropped 50 percent. Women are 56 percent of college enrollees. Girls have made such strides that conservatives in search of a cause (and eager to blame feminists) have dubbed the reverse gender gap the “War on Boys.” And while those celebrities the girls are slavishly aping cycle in and out of rehab, teen drug and alcohol use are both down.
When it comes to violence, the numbers are even more revealing. As an LA Times op/ed pointed out last week, rape stats have plunged since the '70s. The U.S. Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that 105,000 women were raped in 1973, compared with 30,000 in the latest survey. All indicators of sexual violence are down, and the decrease is most dramatic among younger women. In the past 12 years, according to the survey, sexual victimization rates have fallen 78 percent.
In isolation, those trends don’t say anything particularly interesting about the purported connection between short skirts and violence. But rape stats in freefall should at least call into question the casual conflation of Bratz dolls and child abuse. If girls are more hypersexualized than ever, and objectification leads inexorably to depression and violence, why are girls achieving at such high rates? It may be that a passel of miniature thongs is contributing to violent behavior. (And at this point, shouldn’t we just be impressed that they’re sporting underwear at all?) But it’s not obvious, and pointing at a bunch of fourth graders in belly shirts does not make it so.
You could as easily tell the opposite story—one in which those thongs are the sartorial equivalent of grrl power. Prostitot culture could be the anti-rape, encouraging girls to take control of their sexuality before others do. It’s not likely, but the narrative is no more divorced from reality, or bereft of explanatory power, than its APA-stamped counterpart.
Without any mechanism to explain the process by which precocious fashion taste turns to self-loathing, it’s probably safest to assume that the kid's department at Penny's and the darkest recesses of American culture exist a world apart. Girls, as they always have, will alternately embrace the trappings of girlhood and struggle against the mythologies of gender. Parents and soi-disant experts will continue to cluck their tongues, and possibly publish papers. Objecting to the fashion choices of the young is perfectly natural. While girls may be baring more skin than ever, the need to dress disapproval as social science says less about their pathologies than it does about ours.
Kerry Howley is an associate editor for reason.